An Unlikely Model for the Lecture Hall

nataliedee the gym


Considering some potentially fruitful connections between the gym (gah!) and large classrooms.


I run at the small indoor track here at McMaster, one end of which curves around the glass-walled varsity weightroom. (Do you like the confidence with which I used the present tense to describe my running regimen? Thank god blogs don’t have fact-checkers). Each time I turn into the curve that runs past that little room packed with young athletes, a strange vision pops into my mind’s eye: alarmingly pale legs, pumping up and down, with a serious aftershock of jiggle rippling upwards after each footfall. My legs are so very, very pale. They are moon-bright; they might guide you on a starless night; they’ve been known to confuse wolves and other nocturnal animals. When I’m running, I can’t help but feel like they’re flashing neon signs drawing attention to themselves, and to me. And because the track at McMaster is small, I end up running past that weightroom many, many times in a workout.

So when I came across former- professor and now-textbook writer Santo D’Agostino’s blog post last week, I couldn’t help but laugh. In his post, “Lectures Suck“, D’Agostino writes:

“I do think that there is a role for lectures, but they ought to be less frequent, and more resources should be devoted to creating effective learning communities, where groups of students learn together at different levels, and at their own paces. Kind of like a karate dojo, or a weight-lifting gym, where everyone does their thing, helps each other, and there are guides along to help those that need it.”

I not only laughed at this idea, I also snorted. Out loud. In public. When I’m at the gym, I am absolutely, delusionally certain that everyone is looking at meHow could someone suggest that we bring that sort of environment into the classroom?

But I think D’Agostino deserves a lot more credit than this. When I’m at the track and I’m not busy imagining impact-tremors jiggling through my thighs, I sometimes take a moment to appreciate how those around me do their workouts. The way people work in the weightroom is especially impressive. They help each other out, even if they appear to have drastically different capabilities or goals. It seems to be understood that each individual has their own separate path to follow; that what works for one may not work for another. Somehow I have learned that this is not how gyms work; for me, gyms are another venue in which women’s bodies (and men’s too, presumably) come under intense scrutiny. And, unfortunately, many people have learned similar things about classrooms–not that they are image-focused, but that they are about evaluation, grades, performance, and displaying seemingly innate traits like intelligence, or stupidity. I wonder how the lecture hall might be re-conceptualized to avoid this culture of competition and self-criticism, and how it might be structured to incorporate more peer-to-peer learning and multi-track or multi-directional learning. Perhaps the weightroom, or the karate dojo, is a good model.



8 thoughts on “An Unlikely Model for the Lecture Hall

  1. Ah ha! As another Mac indoor track runner (and sometimes tread-mill user, which lets me look out over the whole Pulse weight room) I am rather intrigued by this analogy. Wary of it, for exactly the body politics that you suggest, but also open to it, after recently reading two posts from another friend on her experiences of cross fit. (And yes, Cross Fit has its own tricky issues about disordered eating and defining healthy bodies….but it seems that when it comes to health and activity, nothing is perfect, and at least it’s one more thing that gets people moving and away from screens).

    From this entry:
    “All of the workouts are scalable so that means since I’ve just started and I obviously can’t to a 65 pound overhead squat, I’ll do what I can. I also can’t do double-unders….Yet. I cannot yet seem to do it. But I will, one day.”

    I enjoy the idea that everyone understands that these activities are ‘scalable’: everyone is at a different level, and while you may not be able to do it all YET, the whole idea of training is that you will be able to eventually

    And from this one:
    “I don’t find it to be aggressively competitive, although I do like to know where I stand compared to everyone else who goes, and people are really friendly and support you and cheer you on. I recently saw something that said “CrossFit – the only sport where the loudest cheers are for the last to finish” which has been true in my experience so far.”

    While there is the element of competition, it’s not too aggressive (we know this from school: sometimes the best motivator is the feeling of pressure) and the idea that there is a supportive community that comes out of this and celebrates those who are last to finish begins to upset some of that hierarchy that dominates so much of academics and sport.

    Thanks for this post, and for bringing together a few different worlds in ways that could prove constructive.

    • Yes, the bringing together of worlds, even if awkwardly done, is what I love about blogging over academic writing. Thanks for the comment Laura! And the links. Though I have to say that one thing that bugs me about gyms on top of body-image and food-policing issues is simply the idea that I have to pay to go to the gym. It bothers me that work days are expanding, commute times are growing, and the labour of looking for work is increasing in quantity and frequency so that more and more of our lives are being spent doing unpaid work. Then, on top of it, we have to pay to go to the gym in order not to atrophy at our crappy desk jobs, or on the bus, or in the driver’s seat of our commuter car. It grosses me out!

  2. When I’m trying to tell my students not to get too discouraged about the writing process, or learning in general, I compare it to sports: you’re going to suck for a long time, and it’s only by grinding it out day after day that you’ll see any progress, and those gains can be imperceptible or unsatisfying, even. You can only take pleasure in the struggle when you have a realistic measure of progress.

  3. When I’m talking to my students about writing, I compare it to sports: you’re only going to improve if you grind it out, day after day, and even then your gains might be imperceptible, if not (as is usually the case) wholly unsatisfying. To take any pleasure in it you have to have a realistic measure of progress. And realistic = slow.

  4. I also find that encouraging students to think about learning like they think about other skills (sports, music, art) helps them realize that the very same growth model “fits” academic experience too.

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